The End of Marianne Brownleaf’s Teaching Career
Marianne Brownleaf’s teaching career died on March the thirteenth, as with the rest of her life, during the fatal shooting at Clear Spring’s High School where she taught. It had been morally wounded that day but it actually died two days later, on the fifteenth.
She had loved her job and prided herself that she was also good at it. She taught English but she saw it as more then just making sure her students could spell and write grammatically. She wanted to open up the world of literature for them, even if it was only the smallest of doors. She encouraged her students to read far and wide, beyond the narrow range of supermarket bestsellers and The School Board’s conservative reading list. She had always rewarded book reports that showed a different take on the book read.
She did the same when it came to creative writing. She didn’t expect great literature or to find a great novelist in the making. She wanted to help her students find their imagination and she certainly did that.
That was how Tripp Stewart first came to her attention, otherwise she would have barely noticed he was there, so quiet and unassuming was he. She had set her class the assignment of writing an essay that described just one event. Tripp Stewart wrote of a hunter being accidently shot by his companion. So graphic and in-depth was his writing that at first she feared he’d actually witnessed the event, but a quick check of his permanent record proved that wasn’t true. Then came a deeper realisation, the boy had imagined it; but not the casual imagination of a daydream. Tripp Stewart had put a lot of time and thought into imagining that hunter’s death.
For nearly a week she kept this to herself. Clear Spring’s Principle, Donald Lusk, always took a cynical approach to his students, he was far more ready to call the police than a social worker. The school’s Guidance Councillor, Penny Franklin, was suffering after another breakup and was of no help to any one, left alone herself.
It wasn’t until the following Saturday, when she was visiting her friend Beth, that she finally unburdened herself. Beth, an Emergency Room nurse, listened to Marianne’s worried account of the essay. Afterwards Beth had said:
“God, you could have another Columbine on your hands there.”
With dreed, Marianne had agreed.
Beth’s advice had been for Marianne to give Tripp Stewart extra attention. “Show the boy some kindness and make him feel special,” Beth had said and Marianne agreed. “Show him you care and stop him feeling so alienated,” she added and again Marianne agreed.
With Beth’s advice to the front of her mind Marianne had begun the next week with a mission to improve Tripp Stewart’s self confidence.
She began by praising the latest piece of creative writing he handed in to her, fortunately this one didn’t feature any description of death or murder, in front of her whole English class. Tripp Stewart’s face had flushed with embracement as the other students around him sniggered, but his eyes had flashed with pride. That look alone was a reward to Marianne; but at the end of the lesson, as the other students rushed out of the classroom, Tripp Stewart came up to her and said:
“Did you mean what you said, Miss Brownleaf? About my story?”
“Yes, everything I said,” Marianne replied.
“Thank you Miss, thank you,” he said, his face lighting up with pleasure.
From there on she found it easy to praise Tripp Stewart, he was that rarity in her students, because he had a genuine talent to write. The more praise and feedback she gave him the more she saw his self confidence grow. She could see an actual change in him, he started to take part in class discussions, no longer hiding away at the back of the classroom; he even started talking to his follow students, not just sulking away with Owen North, his previous fellow loner.
When she suggested Tripp Stewart join the school’s newspaper, another one of Marianne’s pet projects, the boy’s whole face glowed with excitement.
“You think I’m good enough?” He asked her.
“Certainly, and more,” she told him.
She was proved right, because Tripp Stewart shone. He soon became one of the leading writers on The Clear Times – not Marianne’s choice of title. His stories regularly lead the newspaper and suddenly he started talking about making a career out of writing. With a glowing pride, Marianne sat back and watched him blossom out of his shell.
This was why she stayed in teaching, with all the stress and difficulty, to help children obviously grow into adults. By mid-term Tripp Stewart had almost unrecognisably changed. He now interacted with other students, often taking part in the discussions Marianne organised in her English classes, and even had his own circle of friends. The sixteen year old was no longer the social outsider who wrote of violence.
It was at an editorial meeting, for The Clear Times, early in January, that Marianne realised she had saved Tripp Stewart, and she felt such a wave of relief. Tripp Stewart was sat next to Ken Maddow, The Clear Time’s editor and a senior at nearly eighteen. All through the editorial the two boys kept exchanging glances, knowing and secretive glances. She knew what those glances meant, she’d seen it enough between students in her classes over the years, it was the glances of two, young lovers. Marianne smiled to herself.
Ken Maddow, the year before, had almost whispered to Marianne that he was gay. Marianne, the way she had done for over ten years now, had replied with reassurance and acceptance; not the panic Donald Lusk expressed at the mere mention of sex by any of their students. Now, she could see, Ken Maddow had found that boyfriend he had longed for and Tripp Stewart had found love.
Marianne Brownleaf found herself finally and confidently relaxing. Her influence had turned around Tripp Stewart, finally gone was the risk of him turning into “another Columbine” and he was now a normal teenager who was actually in love. She had averted a disaster but no one would know it, and she liked it that way.
On March the thirteenth Marianne again rang in sick to Principle Lusk’s annoyance. She’d spent the weekend with her brother and sister-in-law and awoke on Monday morning, the day before, with food poisoning. Once more she was the victim of her sister-in-law’s bad cooking. The next morning, the thirteenth, she awake again with diarrhoea so again she had called in sick.
By mid-day her symptoms had eased and she was feeling better, her appetite was finally returning. So, with a light salad, she sat down to watch the local television news.
It wasn’t just the top story but it was the only story on the news broadcast. There had been a shooting at Clear Springs High School. A student had taken guns to the school, opened fire in a classroom and had carried on shooting throughout the school. The images accompanying the story had been taken from a helicopter, all shaking and unfocused, showing students and teachers fleeing from the school and police in body armour entering the building, chaos everywhere.
With a fist of nausea pushing up into her throat, Marianne rushed around pulling on the first clothes she could find. Then she rushed out of the house.
Panic pushed her into frantic action. God no, she kept thinking, something had pushed Tripp Stewart over the edge. He’d split up with Ken Maddow, he’d been tormented by the school’s brainless jocks, something had broken him and he’d reacted with violence. All the effort, what she’d worked for, had gone wrong and she hadn’t saved Tripp Stewart from his fate. She hadn’t succeeded.
Driving at a crazy speed she had reached the high school in record time, or as near to the school as she was able to. All the roads around the building had been closed off by the police, keeping back all the people there. As she pushed through those people she recognised many them as parents of her students.
When she reached the barricade they wouldn’t let her cross it, no matter how much she protested and begged. She started to move along the barricade, repeating her request to be let past it with each police officer she met but each one wouldn’t let her pass. Finally she found a police officer she knew. Crystal Gregory was one of her many former students. After graduation Crystal had joined the local sheriff’s department, and now she stood before Marianne in her dark blue police uniform.
Crystal too wouldn’t let her pass but Marianne had protested:
“What’s happening? Please tell me. I have to know.”
Crystal had leant close into Marianne and in a hushed voice told her what she knew, but it seemed barely more then what she’d already heard on the local news. Crystal knew six people had been confirmed dead, so far. The SWAT Team, who’d stormed the school, had the shooter cornered until the teen shot himself. Finally Crystal told her the shooter’s name, barely whispered into Marianne’s ear, Owen North.
Marianne’s mind stalled with shock. It wasn’t the name she’d been expecting to hear, the name she’d been preparing herself to hear. It wasn’t Tripp Stewart’s name.
Numb with shock she’d turned away from Crystal Gregory and slowly made her way back to her car. She then slowly drove her car home. There, she slumped in front of the television, letting the news broadcast wash over her.
By nine o’clock that evening she had almost the full story, pieced together from different news reports. Owen North had taken three guns into school in his backpack. During his first class, what would have been her English class, he had taken out a gun and started shooting. The first person he shot was Tripp Stewart, killing him, and then Owen North fired around the class room. He hit many other students, killing three others and killing Mrs Garcia – the relief teacher taking Marianne’s class. From there Owen North walked out into the school’s main corridor where he shot at anyone he found, but he also seemed to hunt down certain people. He’d killed Penny Franklin in her office, he’d shot Donald Lusk when the Principal had confronted him, leaving Lusk alive but with a bullet lodged in his head. Owen North had actually hunted down Ken Maddow, shooting several bullets into the boy’s chest (The news reports said that Ken Maddow was now fighting for his life). The SWAT Team had cornered Owen North in the school’s only computer lab, but he’d shot himself dead before they got near him.
Worst was what Owen North left behind. He’d recorded a video message, that morning, and posted it on his Facebook page. He accused the “liberal intellectuals” of destroying his life. He said they had stolen away his only friend, Tripp Stewart, and turned his friend into a “dirty faggot”. He had nothing to live for so he was going to “teach those stupid liberals bastards a lesson.”
Marianne knew exactly who he meant.
She spent the whole night sat in front of her television, searching for any new information but none was coming. It wasn’t until seven o’clock, the next morning, that she received that last new piece of news. That was when it was announced that Donald Lusk had died, without regaining concounous.
She finally fell asleep, slouched there on her sofa, the television still playing but now unwatched.
She wrote her letter of resignation on the Thursday morning, March the fifteenth. She had to address her letter to Margaret Goldstone, the Vice Principal, only adding to her distress. She had been so wrong, had got it all so wrong. If she hadn’t panicked when she read that original essay of Tripp Stewart’s, if she hadn’t interfered in Tripp Stewart’s life then his friendship with Owen North won’t have fallen apart, if she’d only kept quiet and not tried to change Tripp Stewart then Owen North won’t have been that friendless loner who had sort a murderous revenge. Her stupid behaviour had cost Tripp Stewart his life and lead to a monstrous tragedy. It had been her fault.
She couldn’t go on as a teacher anymore, this was too great a mistake to ever recover from; but her resignation gave her no comfort.